Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 52: The importance of skilling in the digital world

Episode 52 guest speaker Geoff Connell

The importance of skilling in the digital world

with Geoff Connell

On this episode, host Olivia Neal talks to Geoff Connell, the Chief Digital Officer for Norfolk County Council. He shares successful approaches for training and upskilling employees and building digital skillsets.

Episode 52: The importance of skilling in the digital world

Public Sector Future

Episode summary

On this episode, host Olivia Neal talks to Geoff Connell, the Chief Digital Officer for Norfolk County Council. He shares successful approaches for training and upskilling employees, building digital skillsets, and getting the most from your investment in technology.

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Why building digital skills is important for everyone

On this episode, host Olivia Neal talks to Geoff Connell, the Chief Digital Officer for Norfolk County Council. He shares successful approaches for training and upskilling employees, building digital skillsets, and getting the most from your investment in technology.

What do the responsibilities of Norfolk County Council include?

Geoff Connell is the Chief Digital Officer for Norfolk County Council in the UK. The County Council has around 7,000 staff responsible for providing services to around one million residents.

He outlined the responsibilities the Council has: “As a county, the main functions that we’re responsible are for adults and children’s social care for quite a wide geography about a million people. We do education, we do highways, we do fire and rescue, and then some smaller, but still important services like births, deaths, marriages, museums, and of course, all the corporate functions that every big organization provides. So, for our 7,000 staff, we do finance, payroll, procurement, HR, IT, all those sorts of things. I think that’s what makes it really interesting and challenging at times, because it is so diverse. We offer literally hundreds of different services and have hundreds of different systems to do that.”

Addressing the growing need for digital skills

Connell shared how the training requirements for staff has developed in recent years, “The need for digital skills has been increasingly understood as the requirement has grown for people to use technology in every aspect of their roles. Many years ago, when I first started, it was pretty optional. The IT was really kind of mainframe systems. But now, people are using devices in everything they do, whether it’s their mobiles for field work, line of business systems, corporate systems, and increasingly, automation. And I think, particularly the low-code and no-code developments have really changed things in terms of how we tried to get everybody skilled up to work.” 

Connell continued, “And it really started for us with our change of social care system, maybe around five years ago, that we ramped it up to another level. We recognized that our staff needed some catch-up. We probably hadn’t done enough to keep them skilled. So, we said, to get the most out of this really significant investment in this new social care system, which involved mobile working technologies as well, we’d go back to scratch, and we’d develop the skills that they need.  And of course, that’s just for staff. The whole digital skills for our residents and our population is another dimension that’s really important to us.”

A healthy approach to upskilling

“One of the challenges in areas like social care is it’s really hard to recruit enough skilled staff. So, our approach is to think how do we enable the staff that we already have to be as productive as they possibly can. And use of technology to reduce the time that they spend doing the administration is an important component.  And in recent times, in particular, I think the advancement around low-code and no-code technologies, and automation generally, has meant that we can really focus on driving out those and automating those lower value activities, so that the staff can focus on what’s really important; relationships and human services that they provide. So, it’s really trying to use the technology to amplify the effect of those staff that we have.”

Connell added, “We’ve recognized that we’ve probably underinvested over an extended period of time in digital skills, and we’ve made assumptions that people come into the organization have a certain level of skill. So, what we did was one-to-one sessions with everybody, as we rolled out the new equipment, rolled out the new systems and technology, to make sure that they can use these things properly. We’ve taken nothing for granted. And I’ll be honest, the kind of low base of skills with some people probably did take us by surprise, but also means the opportunity to improve their productivity is really significant. So, that was a lot of one-to-one training there.”

“I think when COVID came along, we recognized that we had to do things a bit differently. And so, we did massive broadcasts of training for how to use things like Teams. And we literally trained thousands of staff in a matter of days and weeks. So, I think using the new technologies, particularly use of Teams, has allowed us to get to more staff a lot quicker. And I think with the advent of YouTube, and that sort of thing, people are increasingly looking to video content to get their digital skills or any kind of skills. So, increasingly, what we’re doing is creating bite-sized chunks of digital training through video that people can consume as and when they want to, and they can top up and, and refresh themselves. So, that’s been a healthy approach.”

 “And we’ve also tried to focus on building communities, communities of people who want to work together and support each other around. For example, the change agent network that we’re involved in has been a great community that kind of self supports and learns together.”

The Change Agent Network

“The Change Agent Network has actually been facilitated and developed in conjunction with Microsoft. And what we do is we bring together people who are involved in digitally enabled change from multiple local authority organizations to work together, to learn together. And it’s really recognizing that for this cohort, they don’t need to be developers, they don’t need deep technical skills.”

Connell explained, “What they need to do is understand how does tech, and digital and data fit into a change program? How does it enable changes to ways of working to improve productivity, improve the user experience. And so, the focus is very much on tech and digital in the context of business change.”

Low-code and no-code applications

In addition to providing all employees with a base level of digital skills, Connell has also focused on role-specific opportunities for building capabilities with technology. “That might be about using your line of business system in highways or social care or education, or it might be about the change agent network, where it’s using digital as a change capability to support new ways of working and innovation, or it might be people who do want to get deeper into redesigning and automating the way that they work.” 

“That’s where the low-code, no-code, and even robotic process automation comes in, different levels of scale skills for each. So, Power Automate, for example, we’re getting, hundreds of staff all around the organization, developing with these tools, optimizing the ways that they work locally, and automating, supported by a center of excellence in the IT and digital function. So, it really is about looking at everybody’s role and thinking how do we digitally upskill them to get the best out of our technology investment, and to increasingly automate everything we can, and to improve that customer and user experience.”

Investing in the future

“It’s worth reflecting, this isn’t just Norfolk County Council. If I look at digital inclusion and upskilling of staff, it’s something we’ve done in conjunction with the NHS (National Health Service) in our region. It’s called an integrated care system, so we all work together to try to develop the use digital skills for staff, but also recognizing that if we can digitally upskill our residents, they can look after their own health better. They can use our online systems, they can improve their health, wealth and well-being. So, it’s in that broader context of working across the system.”

How have people responded to the need to develop new skills?

Connell shared, “As with any change initiative, I think some people are hesitant, cautious, scared, even, scared of maybe being shown up for not having the skills that people will assume they have. Others absolutely grasp the opportunity to upskill to embrace new technologies. And so, what we tried to do is make some of it mandatory. So, there’s a mandatory basic skill level that’s expected, that’s been supported by our human resources, our people management service. And then there are areas where you need more skills to operate those systems. And then there are parts that are optional. You can buy into it, if you wish, but you don’t have to. But it’s also been a journey, and I think helping our residents to digitally upskill has actually enthused some of our staff.”

Connell offered an example: “During COVID, when we had the lockdown and children were sent home from school at short notice, we recognized that thousands of children would be digitally disadvantaged. They wouldn’t be able to get proper education because they didn’t have equipment. So, we came together as an organization. We worked with local voluntary organizations and our partners. And in a matter of weeks, we rolled out 5,000 laptops to every digitally disadvantaged child in the county. And I think there was a great sense of pride that came from mobilizing that kind of capability, and a great recognition from staff that actually, this is just as relevant for our residents as it is for staff.”

“It’s about digital skills in your private life, as well as at work, and things like cybersecurity skills. There’s relevant for keeping your family’s data and finances safe as they are in the office. So, we tried to kind of cross fertilize those ideas of digital skills for general life and for work.”

Finding surprises along the way

“What surprised me, I think that there was a lower base of skills in certain parts of the organization than I would have assumed. I think sometimes, when you’re in technology, just kind of assume people have a certain level of knowledge. And it was definitely lower. So, the scale of the investment in terms of time and capacity was greater than I thought.”

“I also learned that it wasn’t enough to train people. When you’re introducing new technology, you’ve got to remember that every new starter needs that training repeated for them, or you’re building up a digital skills gap. So, that was an important element that I guess I learned along the way.”

Connell mentioned, “Some people just really surprise you. You know, there’s some people who don’t have a development or a techie background, who very quickly got themselves to pretty much expert level in development, simply because they had the right attitude and aptitude, and they self-learned.”

Advice for building digital skills

Geoff Connell offered advice to other organizations who want to replicate the upskilling that Norfolk County Council has done.

“I would say, if possible, have this as a joint ownership activity, not just an IT thing. I think if you can get your people services, your human resources, learning and development staff to co-own this with you, that helps. Certainly, I deployed some capacity in there to work across both. That was one thing that was useful to do.”

“Another one is to build communities. So, we have communities such as the Change Agent Network, and I love that. I have to say, everybody who’s been on that training comes back utterly enthused by the art of the possible and the new people they’ve met. And I think that community self-propagates. It builds itself; it keeps itself going. And so, we have other communities around the development side of things, assistive tech. There are a whole bunch of groups of people who work together.”

“So, I think if you can foster those communities of digital champions or groups of like-minded people, that really helps, and also to rebuild that business case around not just doing point-in-time investments in training for new developments, but having a permanent team that can constantly be topping up people’s skills, supporting new initiatives, and driving down the volume of calls that you see associated with the service desk, because that, as I say, that creates its own business case.”

Getting excited about the future

“One of the great things in digital and technology and data is the opportunities are constantly developing. New things come along all the time. And unlike many other areas that we have to invest in, the cost of the technology often trends downward, so things become more accessible.”

So, what is Connell excited about investing his time in?

“I’m excited about mainstreaming the use of automation. We’ve got lots, probably 60 different use cases now that we’ve developed for automation. And I think that’s such a sweet spot for us, because the amount of demand we have from our communities, from our residents, is always increasing, particularly with an aging population. The amount of money that we have to service those people constantly trends downwards. So, automation and effective use of data are two of the best ways I think that we can cope with that challenge of demand and resource.”

“Using predictive analytics to get ahead of the curve to spot, for example, people who are likely to fall in next year, do you proactively support them to stop that happening? So, you reduce the demand from the outset, but you reduce the cost of serve. That’s, I think, a great example of use of those technologies.”

“Another set of technologies that are linked to that are what we call assistive tech, technology that people use in their own homes to help them live independently for longer. Again, it’s a huge win-win. People get to live independently, higher quality of life for longer, but the cost of the system is actually reduced.”

“AI, is a hot topic at the moment. You know, there’s fear and worry, and there are ethical dynamics associated with its adoption. But there’s also a huge amount of excitement about what mundane activities could this automate, how could it speed up application processes or, you know, provision of services? I think that’s really exciting.”

Connell concluded, “So, automation, emerging technology, the low-code, no-code, the AI, all exciting opportunities for driving greater value and better outcomes for our residents in the future.”

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